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With budget deal absent, legislators consider stopgap plans

July 16, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Chances that a North Carolina budget standoff between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will be resolved soon appear small enough that GOP legislators are looking to spend more funds to keep state government humming, then possibly go home.

Negotiations between Cooper and GOP lawmakers on a compromise have gone nowhere since June 28, when Cooper vetoed the two-year budget bill drawn up by Republicans.

Otherwise, Republicans also have tried without success to override Cooper’s veto, although the House — where several Democrats would have to join the GOP majority — hasn’t taken an actual override vote. Some of those Democrats, living in districts that would receive generous earmarks in the budget, have been the subject of intense lobbying by Republican leaders and Cooper.

Still, the focus of negotiations has been squarely on whether the state should expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands more low-income adults, which Cooper and his allies want.

Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County, a strong expansion opponent, said Tuesday that it’s clear Cooper won’t budge in negotiations on other matters unless there’s agreement that expansion will be approved. The sides also are far apart on tax cuts, public school construction, and teacher and state employee raises — items that Berger said are being delayed because of Cooper.

“The legislature passed a budget and the governor is blocking that budget or any budget based on our conversations over his Medicaid-or-nothing ultimatum,” Berger told reporters, recalling a budget phone meeting with Cooper and other legislators late last week.

Cooper’s office pushed back, saying that there’s no such ultimatum and accused Republicans of spending too much time on an override that will fail. But, spokesman Ford Porter said, Medicaid must be part of any serious budget discussions. Some House Republicans are interested in a form of expansion that includes enrollee premiums and work requirements.

Cooper “believes leaders in both chambers must be willing to commit to a serious negotiation and path forward for Medicaid expansion as part of the budget process,” Porter wrote. “Thus far, Republicans have preferred gamesmanship, silly accusations and power games.”

Previous state law already directed that government keep operating at last year’s spending levels when the new fiscal year began July 1.

Now House and Senate Republicans are advancing competing stopgap measures to cover more spending needs. Their disagreements would have to be worked out before the funding contained within is approved and sent to Cooper’s desk.

The Senate’s budget committee approved a bill Tuesday that would simply direct how more than $1 billion in federal block grant funds would be distributed through state agencies — a perfunctory directive in each annual budget. It’s very different from what the full House approved last week in a stopgap measure, which included funds for public school enrollment growth this fall and for juvenile justice reforms.

If the standoff continues, GOP legislators also will have to decide whether to keep the General Assembly operating into the summer or leave while negotiations simmer. The Senate has offered a resolution to adjourn starting Monday and return in late August. Berger questioned whether it made sense to keep all legislators in Raleigh.

Moore told reporters Monday that he wasn’t inclined to go home.

“I think we’re going to be here until we get a resolution on the budget,” he said.

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